For homeowners looking to remodel, zoning and architectural regulations can be an awful burden, delaying a project's start by weeks or even months until compliance issues are addressed and designs are approved by local officials. Working in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., where notorious bureaucracies and an abundance of historic property restrictions keep the paperwork flowing, remodelers Doug Hanna and Alex Slive of S+H Construction know the local system far better than they ever hoped to — so well, in fact, that they offer their expertise as a service to clients.

“We tell prospective clients that we're very familiar with zoning issues in Cambridge and Boston,” Slive says. “We'll assess the problem, fill out variance applications, talk to officials, and go to hearings with them. Depending on what the client wants, we'll either assist them or take the lead.”

Slive and Hanna charge clients between $50 and $75 per hour for handling variance and architectural review applications. The rate, however, is viewed as compensation for Slive's and Hanna's time, not as an additional revenue stream. “It's not a money-making thing,” Slive says. “It's part of what we do.”

MORE CONTROL Still, Slive adds, the service is a value-add for the company, and ultimately helps the bottom line by bringing in business. Applying for a variance is a lengthy, time-consuming process — just filling out the application, which requires plans, photographs, title and property records, and a host of other details, takes between 10 and 15 hours, Slive says. S+H Construction's reputation for expertise in negotiating bureaucracy, touted on the company's Web site and in printed materials, attracts prospective clients who don't want to take on that effort themselves. Architects, too, will steer homeowners to S+H if they know their design doesn't comply with local regulations.

Another benefit is that the remodelers control, to the extent they can, the fate of the project. Rather than waiting for a client to follow through, they can get the project approved in a timely manner.

“You must really understand the issues,” Slive says, “and once you do, you have to know how to play the game.” For all their experience, Slive admits that the caprice of local officials clouds every application with uncertainty. “With variance requests, you don't expect a logical outcome. You just pray it comes out in your favor.”